Over the next two weeks I will analyse the situation which LGB&T* asylum seekers are faced with when seeking asylum in West Yorkshire. This week I will describe the situation in regard to an individual, P, who I supported. Then next I will pose some general questions about Home Office practice and advocate that there is a need to revisit decision making practices.
In the Guardian last week it was reported that the chair of the home affairs select committee Keith Vaz had taken an interest in the leaked document that was circulated on social media a few weeks ago entitled ‘Questions to a Bisexual Asylum Seeker’. I was pleased to see that Mr. Vaz came down hard on this example of Home Office malpractice by saying he found the UK Border Agency’s line of questioning “shockingly degrading” and later that the leaked document was evidence that “clearly, something is going terribly wrong here”. The following will be a short piece on my experience of supporting a number of LGB&T* asylum seekers in West Yorkshire and in sharing these experiences I hope to sketch an understanding of those wrongdoings that Vaz refers to.
In 2010 those of us who had been supporting LGB&T* asylum seekers were celebrating a change in the Home Office’s approach to the rights and well-being of LGB&T* asylum seekers. Finally there was a recognition, both in the form of case law and in the form of UKBA policy, that the Home Office should no longer deport asylum seekers back to homophobic or transphobic countries with the instruction that these people should ‘live discreetly’.
We are four years on from this modest victory and it seems that the situation in the UK for those seeking asylum due to homophobic or transphobic persecution remains dire. There has been a shift in focus on the part of the UKBA which now emphasises the need for individual asylum seekers to ‘provide evidence’ in order that they might ‘prove’ beyond reasonable doubt that they are LGB or T*. However, the UKBA has not provided any guidance as to what counts as credible or admissible evidence in cases such as these. Disturbingly the yardstick against which the credibility or admissibility of evidence is being assessed is often the prejudices and preoccupations of individual asylum judges. But in my eyes it won’t do to simply interrogate each individual asylum judge as to their values and beliefs because the evidence suggests that these prejudices and preoccupations are nourished by an entrenched and institutionally racist and homophobic asylum system.
I haven’t arrived at this conclusion lightly – perhaps for clarification we should consider some examples of how these institutional and systemic prejudices have impacted on the lives of individual asylum seekers. For some time now I have supported P who is a gay man from Pakistan. P claims to have come to this country because he suffered violent persecution at the hands of his family when they discovered that he had been involved in a sexual relationship with another man whilst at university in Pakistan. P has various kinds of evidence to support that he had been the victim of violence in Pakistan, including doctors’ reports. P has evidence from his partner in Pakistan which suggests that the two were in a relationship, including letters and pictures of the two hugging. P also has signed letters from friends and colleagues in Pakistan which clearly state that P had to leave the country because of violent homophobia. The UKBA assessed all of this evidence, and it granted that it would be unacceptable to return P to Pakistan if he were gay. However, it said on balance that P had not provided sufficient credible evidence to prove that he was. Therefore he would not be granted asylum. The UKBA instructed P that should he want to appeal this decision he would need to provide more evidence of his sexuality, but it gave no instruction to P as to what evidence it would deem admissible or credible.
P was left in a very difficult and vulnerable situation – it seemed to him that the only reasonable thing to do in the face of the UKBA’s disbelief was to amass as much evidence of him engaging in homosexual behaviour as possible in the hope that at least some of it would count toward his credibility as being gay. The pressing questions which faced P and those of us who supported him with collecting this evidence were, to an asylum judge what does gayness look like? What do gay people do and with whom? Who are gay people and how do they make themselves known? Where do gay people socialise and what do they do when socialising? For the purposes of asylum law, how are gay people in the UK behaviourally different from straight people?
P began the traumatic task of amassing this evidence by seeking out a sexual partner who would consent to being filmed whilst engaging in sexual activity with P. His thought was that if the judge could see that he was freely engaging in homosexual behaviour then they could not doubt that he was gay. P found a partner though a dating app that was willing to do this and a video was made of them having sex which was submitted to the court.
P also sought out letters from LGB&T* charities, LGB&T* social groups, asylum and refugee organisations and medical professionals stating that they felt he was gay. These letters consisted of details of the involvement P had with these various bodies and the worker’s opinion on whether P was telling the truth about his sexuality. P had a number of letters of this kind, all of which corroborated his story.
P increased his attendance at large LGB&T* community events and social spaces. He took photographs of himself at Pride events which he submitted as evidence as his involvement in gay social life. He joined a gay sauna and submitted his membership card as evidence that further evidence that he was sexually active.
After months of waiting P’s case came to appeal, the judge viewed all of the evidence including the video of P having sex which was played for the judge on P’s phone in the court room. P was questioned on this evidence, especially around the particulars of how he met his new sexual partner and on the nature of their relationship. P was denied asylum on a lack of credibility. P’s case is not exceptional; the majority of LGB&T* asylum seekers I have met have provided similar evidence and have been refused asylum.
What are we to make of these decisions, what do they say about the condition of our legal justice system? What else could we reasonably expect asylum seekers to do to evidence their identity? What kind of society expects vulnerable and traumatised people to gather and provide evidence of their sexual orientation or gender identity?
The message being sent out to LGB&T* asylum seekers from the Home Office seems to be ‘whatever ends you go to show us who you are, we are deeply suspicious that your motives in coming here are anything other than duplicitous and self-serving, you are not welcome’. But what is driving this inhospitality? The explanation for the Home Office’s pervasive suspicion seems grimly familiar – homophobic discrimination. Next week I hope to analyse this homophobia and suggest some changes that the Home Office could make to end such institutionally oppressive practices.
N.B. In LGB&T* the asterisk represents the multiplicity of gender identities recognised under the term Trans*